Art Papers, November/December 2005
Reviews / SOUTHEAST HUNTSVILLE, AL (p. 47)
By Dorothy Joiner
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn condemned the desire for novelty, stating that it ruined the twentieth century. His castigation notwithstanding, the lasting demand for innovation sometimes makes for good viewing, as with The Red Clay Survey 2005: Triennial Exhibition of Contemporary Southern Art [June 19-September 11, 2005]. Felicitously displayed at the Huntsville Museum of Art, the exhibition offers refreshing heterogeneity, underscoring the plurality of Southern culture, and the vitality of artistic production in the region.
The visitor encounters this diversity in the first room, which is devoted to sculpture. In James Rodgers Alexander’s Invitation, 2003, twenty-one solemnly geometrical, black sand-coated chairs are positioned in a circle. Two chairs are juxtaposed just outside the circle, near a gap wide enough for only one. A metaphor of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, these two “Sons of Abraham” must, the artist says, become one to fit into the circle of nations.
Mocking sententious academic criticism, Michael Aurbach‘s The Critical Theorist, 2002, is a fantastic, non-functioning contraption à la Rube Goldberg. An oversized pot implies that critical theory is cooked up; meat grinders contribute Essence of Derrida, Extract of Foucault, and Art to the pseudo-scholarly stew. Strainers are labeled Fact Remover, condiment dispensers provide a Spin Cycle, and a meat cleaver delivers the Cutting Edge. Other gadgets eliminate art altogether even as they present a final product: a book intriguingly nailed shut. What joke lies within?
Also engaging are the exhibition’s photographs. A stunning expanse of blue and chartreuse green, Caroline Davis’ Gulf Wave, 2004, conjoins sky and water in an archival metallic print. In her three contemporary daguerreotypes, Ashley Oates applies the emulsion on aluminum, and installs the images so that, frameless, they project out from the wall. In Push, Sometimes Float (Tornado I), 2003, eerily stark, leafless trees limned on the metal surface are further activated by the manual process’ random brush marks. In Jim Morris’ digital print, Backwater Signature, 2003, fluid, bending sea grasses form a calligraphic silhouette reminiscent of an illuminated tugra —the elaborate signature seal of an Islamic ruler—against a seamless marriage of gray-blue sky and water.
Reflections of traditional Southern culture suggested by the exhibition’s title are, in fact, quite rare. These glimpses are nonetheless evocative. In John Sumner’s photograph Brookwood Station, 2004, a black clergyman stands in the mist beside a train, his striped suit slightly wrinkled, his lips closed but smiling. The title locates the work in Atlanta. The implied themes are manifold: race, religion, and the great migration. William Nelson creates an elevated seat from beautifully gnarled wood and spindly sticks. Titled Southern Roots (High Chair Series), 2002, the work elicits Nelson’s childhood in the South. Marilee Keys fashions two wondrous configurations from dried pine needles, the “leaves” of the ubiquitous Southern pine: the first, structured; the second, freer and more inventive. Though they recall the art of basket weaving, these are truly sculptures.
Several decades ago, the South was often deemed wanting in support and promotion of the visual arts. The 2005 Red Clay Survey disproves that assumption, and reveals the creative dynamism and diversity below the Mason-Dixon line.